University of Westminster’s principal lecturer and Director of the Jethro Institute for Good Governance, Dr Claudette Carr, deconstructs Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri’s rousing, moving and thought provoking speech at the annual Steve Biko memorial lecture at the University of Cape Town (delivered 12th September 2012) in honour of the activist who was murdered by apartheid security police 35 years ago.

I am more than certain we have witnessed one of the most transfixing speeches delivered thus far, for the annual, 13th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, magically crafted by Nigerian author, and public intellectual, Ben Okri, some few days ago at the University of Cape Town .

It’s worth mentioning again here – that along with Emperor Haile Selassie’s address to the United Nations in 1963 ( which, incidentally, was later translated into the powerful anti-racist anthem, ‘War’ by Bob Marley), and Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” Speech, addressing equality and discrimination, also in the same year; we are in danger of staring a gift horse in the face.

Okri’s five-part talk, entitled “Biko and the Tough Alchemy of Africa”, embraced the spirit of Pan-Africanism, providing a soul- stirring blueprint for Africa’s much talked about renaissance. I argue further on, that this malady of “Bad Faith,” ensconced in many of the philosophical and thought provoking questions raised in Okri’s speech, are indeed endemic to current modes of political thinking and discourses on development about Africa.

Like Dr Martin Luther King, Okri ascended the mountain top, and descended with a speech so majestic – it included an encyclopedic knowledge, and a Solomonic wisdom second to none: so wide, you couldn’t get around it, so deep you couldn’t get under it, and so high you couldn’t get over it.

I am somewhat surprised he is still with us, having not been translated, or transfigured somewhere in the process of this oratory masterpiece. African leaders, intellectuals, activists, and development professionals, would do well to take heed –  we are indeed standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Ben Okri, is truly what the African-American scholar, Cornel West has described as a “race transcending intellectual,” but organic enough an intellectual to recognize the potential of the “balm in gilead” remedy, Biko’s Black Consciousnes Movement provides, for healing the wound of the daughter of his people throughout the Continent of Africa.

Ben Okri speaks in Cape Town at the 2012 Steve Biko Memorial lecture 

Let me start with a quote about Steve Biko from Okri:

“You have no idea what you mean in the historic consciousness of the world. Sometimes it seems that awful things in history happen to compel us to achieve the impossible, to challenge our idea of humanity. Your struggle mirrored around the world, is one of the greatest struggles of our times. It poses and continues to pose the biggest questions facing humanity; massive philosophical questions that have never really been tackled by the great thinkers of the human race. These are some of the questions which your history posed: Are human beings really equal? Is justice fundamental to humanity or is justice a matter of law? Is there evil? Can different races really live together? Is love unreal in human affairs? Why is there so much suffering? Why do some people seem to suffer more than others? Can the will of a people overcome great injustice? Can a people transform their lives and their society through the power of a new vision? Does God exist and is God unfair?”~ Ben Okri.

Dismantling Bad Faith

The questions Okri  so poignantly poses in his speech, are key in grappling with many of our contemporary concerns about the African condition, as they relate to the notion of bad faith.

In ‘Fanon and the Crisis of European Man’, Lewis R.Gordon provides a good reference point, from which we can begin to think critically about dismantling the syndrome of “Bad Faith” that persists in development discourse concerning Africa.

I use ‘bad faith’ here to describe the kinds of epistemic violence reinscribed in postcolonial discourses on Africa, which are dependent upon Western intellectuals speaking on behalf of the subaltern [the poor/marginalised], rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.

I use Gayatri Spivak’s formulation of epistemic violence here, where the subaltern is silenced by both the colonial and indigenous elites. Fanon, observed that one major stumbling block pertaining to the African condition, was the national bourgeosie, who simply had as their plan – having fought for national independence struggles in Africa – to move into the masters mansion.

It is not particularly surprising then, as the Ghanian economist George Ayittey has noted why we have so many corrupt “hippo” leaders turning several African countries into corrupt banana republics. I would apply this thesis to the black bourgeosie today. Africa needs more than a “Cheetah” generation who merely constitute a bunch of Professional careerists, or technical rationalists whose desire for their nation are difficult to disentangle from that of their colonial masters.

Steve Biko ‘lights up’ the University of Cape Town

Where is the platform for Africa’s new intellectual leaders? What do we really mean by “Empowering African Women? Where are the African women intellectual leaders?

“Institutional bad faith discourages human recognition. It is an effort to construct collectives and norms, “inert” practices, that militate against sociality, against human being. Although its goal is the elimination of the human in human being, its route of legitimation may be humanity-in-itself. Institutional bad faith some times takes the form, then, of an attack on humanity in the name of humanity. Segregation in the name of order, which in turn is in the name of peace, which in turn is in the name of the public good, which in turn is in the name of protecting the innocent, and so on. The appeal is familiar. there is a discouragement of choice through the presentation of ossified values.” (Gordon, 1995:22)

Some key concepts in developmentalist discourse aimed at “empowering” and “giving voice” to the poor, as if the poor had no voice in the first place to tell their own stories are tools used to perpetuate bad faith. It is only when we begin unpacking some of these concepts and the ‘spirit’ behind them, that we begin to see how they have become what I refer to as “broken cisterns that hold no water” – acts of false generosity in the face of continued suffering and poverty within the African context. What are the contours of this bad faith that keep Africa in this sate of poverty in perpetuity?

Once again, Okri incisively observes:

“All across the continent and everywhere where human love responds to the suffering of others, these questions were nagging kind of music. All across Africa these questions troubled us – and among the voices that articulated a profoundly bold and clear response to these big questions of fate, injustice and destiny, one big voice pierced our minds was that of Steve Biko. One of my points of affinity with Biko is with his rigour and his high-standards of expectation of the human and the African spirit.

“He asks fundamental questions like: Who are you? What are you? Are you what others say you are? What is your selfhood? What makes you a man or a woman? He asks questions which will be relevant in hundreds of years time, questions which are an inevitable part of a free society. We need to reincarnate Biko’s rigour, his high-standards and his forensic questioning of society and of all of his assumptions. We need to keep alive Biko’s fierce and compassionate truthfulness. In fact, we need Biko’s spirit now more than ever. If he were here today he might well ask such questions: Is the society just? Are we being truthful about one another? Has there been a real change of attitudes and assumptions on both sides of the racial divide?

“He might have expressed concerns about the police reaction to the striking miners of Marikana. He would have said that it does not need to be said that the murders and the use of apartheid law to try the miners are shocking to the international community and that it has disturbing resonances with his own death. He might well ask: Has there been reconciliation without proper consideration? He might ask whether the things that he fought against have merely mutated like certain cancerous cells. It is a strange kind of fate for Biko to have suffered for in being so unjustly cut down so early, he remains for us perpetually poised in the stance of his difficult questions.” ~Ben Okri.

 Message to a Liberal White Development Economist

Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s (1946-1977)

I close with a message written some time ago by the author (of this piece), in response to a liberal white economist, who in the course of several online exchanges, had dismissed African intellectuals such as Steve Biko – and on this occasion, Chinua Achebe as being irrelevant to Africa’s Development.

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” ~ Steven Biko

“Paradoxically, a saint like [Albert] Schweitzer can give one a lot more trouble than King Leopold II, villain of unmitigated guilt, because along with doing good and saving African lives Schweitzer also managed to announce that the African was indeed his brother, but only his junior brother.”― Chinua Achebe

Dear Liberal [white Economist]The above is a quote – Chinua Achebe is making this point.I post many critical quotes about the Black African existential condition in relation to development – you choose to discredit them in the way you do, which is a testament to how effective they obviously are . I will not be silenced or derailed by your defensive comments each time I post a quote or a piece that stirs your soul.You may have gathered by now, that I am beyond obsfucatory platitudes; my modus operandi for getting beyond the good intentions that beset much of development practice, is CHANGE [NB. not the 'Like' button']. You need to get beyond making personal attacks, because you disagree with a comment I have posted on my wall. Let me be clear, as Machiavelli very poignantly notes, “I am not interested in preserving the status quo, I want to overthrow it.”I think that is what paradigm shift might actually mean.The art of good development practice is for development professionals – soon and very soon, to make themselves redundant.As an Economist you should empathise or know, that this, at the very least, is what will go some way towards constituting genuine human growth. We pay homage to those who have gone before us in the quest for transformative justice: Chinua Achebe, Steve, Biko, Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Frantz Fanon, Patrice Lamumba, Samora Machel, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Harriet Tubman, Walter Sisulu, Walter Rodney, Oliver Tambo, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, May Angelou, Angela Davies….Shall I go on speaking more uncomfortable truths? We would still have Jim Crow, and women would still be chained to kitchen sinks….and blacks still infantilised, subject to the brutal and ignoble regime of Apartheid in South Africa, had Biko not courageously announced: “I Write What I like!” I make the posts, I do to ensure that Africa, for this new generation of “do-gooders,” as you put it, do not decontextualise, dehistoricize, or dehumanize the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of GIANTS, of which Chinua Achebe and Steve Biko are such ones. (Signed, FrankTalk)

Source: Copyright 2012, Dr Claudette Carr.
About Dr Carr:

Dr Carr is the founding Director of the Jethro Institute for Good Governance (JIGG), and has over seventeen years experience lecturing in International and Community Development, Youth & Community Work, Social Work, and Social Policy, at Brunel, Birbeck, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences (Switzerland) and the University of Westminster. Alongside Lucerne colleagues, as Principal Lecturer, Claudette  co-ordinated the programme for the MA in International Community Development.    As the London Course leader, she successfully facilitated the Summer School in International Community Development at Westminster. In Partnership with J!GG, The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee, and the University of Westminster, Claudette has set up and secured funding for the Sylvia Pankhurst Scholarship for Ethiopian girls, and the Dr John Garang Scholarship for South Sudan starting in September 2012.

She holds a PhD in education and degrees in social science and applied anthropology from Goldsmiths College, and is also JNC qualified in youth and community work. Her research interest include Community politics and new social movements; black and ethnic self-organisation in the UK and Diaspora; the emergence of vernacular histories and indigenous knowledge(s) and their impact on the assertion of ethnic identity.  Her PhD thesis looked at ‘How Black History is constructed and represented in different sites of education’.Claudette is currently researching ‘Diaspora Organisations in the Horn of Africa and their role in community Governance (Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia)’. She is the co-author of an open letter to the Swedish Minister of Culture, that address the recent Swedish Racist Cake controversy, and recently partcipated in the conversation- ‘Racism is No Joke A Swedish Minister and a Hottentot Venus Cake’, which will be published in a forthcoming anthology, Afro-Nordic Landscapes: Equality and Race in Northern Europe (Routledge, 2012), edited by Michael McEachrane and with a foreword by Professor Paul Gilroy.

5 Responses

  1. Wandile

    Hey Good Day Neva Mwiti,

    I trust that this email finds you in a very good health, i just want to say I’m really inspired by the articles on your website.. i love AFRICA and i hope It’s people will one day run it very well and that it succeeds and continue to grow economically so that the citizen can benefit massively.

    I’m currently working on an idea of a a documentary that promotes rich African values and proverbs amongst the dynamic/vibrant African youth! As Africa Prospers we should forget carrying our values.. without values we will turn into unkind people.

    thank you and stay blessed,



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